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April 02, 2008

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Betsy Brantner Smith Survival Insights
with Betsy Brantner Smith

What makes a successful career?

Read the P1 reader response to this article.

Sometime in about 8th grade I first decided I was going to be a cop. This was around 1972 (yes, I'm that old), well before women were very prevalent in law enforcement. The co-called "women's movement" was in full swing, so I also decided I would be the first female chief of police in whatever agency I chose to join after college. In 1980 I was hired by the suburban Chicago department I still work for, and was so excited to finally be a "real" cop that my dreams of promotion were relegated to the far back burner.

After about seven years of patrol, detectives, and narcotics, it was recommended to me that I get back to patrol work so that I could prepare to become a sergeant.

A sergeant? I wasn't ready to be a sergeant, as I was still learning how to be a really great cop!

Nevertheless, I finished my time in the drug task force, returned to patrol and became an FTO. A couple of years later I transferred back to detectives, this time as a juvenile officer, while two of my friends, both with less time on the job than me, were about to become sergeants. They had taken the sergeant's test that I had declined to take, and I still hadn't felt ready or worthy of becoming a supervisor. 

I took the test the next time it became available, and lo and behold, in mid-1992, I was promoted to sergeant. Newly married, I felt I could finally think about becoming a parent. I had always told myself that I would not have a baby until I had sergeant's stripes — my life was going according to plan, as I smugly believed it always would.

Fast forward to 2003: I was divorced, remarried, mom to a third grade girl and step mom to three teenagers. I had just been transferred back to patrol from a seven-year assignment to the crime prevention unit. I was working on the side for the Law Enforcement Television Network (LETN) and had also just begun to work for Calibre Press and the "Street Survival" seminar.

I had taken the lieutenant's text a couple of times and it finally it appeared that I was going to become a lieutenant, a promotion I had coveted for years. This time though, I secretly had my doubts about a promotion enhancing my career and my life. I was the senior sergeant in patrol, first to pick my shift, my day off schedule, my vacation time.

As the junior lieutenant, I would be assigned to the night shift (or wherever the division commander ordered me to work), I would lose the ability to build compensatory time, make overtime, and I would be last to pick my vacation time. I would lose any union affiliation or protection as well as my civil service status; I would become an "at will" employee, and frankly, I would be joining a management team that I had mostly butted heads with as a sergeant. It would be difficult for me to get time off, so I would undoubtedly have to give up my off-duty work as a trainer and consultant. Tell me again why I want to be a lieutenant?

Society expects us to strive to "move up." In most law enforcement agencies, we are expected to seek promotion or at least a specialty assignment or two. No one is encouraged to spend 20 or 30 years "pushing a patrol car;" we're supposed to try hard to get ahead. When we fail to meet those expectations we're told to work harder, get more education, change our attitude, take on more responsibility, and be more of a team player.

We put pressure on ourselves, and our families often put pressure on us as well; after all, a specialty position or a promotion may mean a higher salary, more overtime, better hours, more prestige, less danger. And yet we tend to forget the basic structure of a police organization: it's a pyramid ... one person at the top, a few more in the middle, and lots of people at the bottom.

Does that mean all those people at the bottom are lacking in skill, ambition, and talent? Do you have to have a detective's shield or sergeant's stripes or more to be considered successful? Do we have to always to striving to obtain a higher rank or a better position, even if we're happy where we're at?

Too often we judge a cop's career (or our own) by rank or assignment, not by accomplishments. And we definitely give little thought to how satisfied someone is outside of the job. As Dr. Ellen Kirshman says in her book "I Love a Cop," officers and their families are not prepared for the anxiety and disappointment that often accompanies getting ahead. We teach officers to survive the streets, but we don't teach them much about how to survive their agencies. Very often, not moving up is the best career move you can make, but it's different for each individual. Before you decide to take that promotional exam or compete for that detective's spot, think about how a new assignment or a higher rank will affect the quality of your life and the lives of those you hold dear.

When I was finally offered that lieutenant's promotion, I turned it down, much to the surprise of many in my agency and in my life! And yet, many more people approached me, often in confidence, and told me it was the best move I could have made and how they wish they had made the same decision. It's a decision I've never regretted, not for a moment; it's made me a better parent, a better trainer, a better sergeant, and frankly, a better person.

Never stop growing and learning. Never stop making yourself better. Understand that a title, a pay raise, a higher rank aren't necessarily going to make you better, or happier, or more important. Those are things you accomplish on your own, regardless of what's in front of or behind your name.

About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter





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